Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 15, 2018
Saint Miriam Pro-Cathedral, Flourtown, Pennsylvania
Rev. David Justin Lynch, Guest Preacher
Amos 7:12-15 | Psalm 85 9-14
Ephesians 1:3-14 | Mark 6:7-13
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
One of the larger challenges facing the independent Catholic movement in many places is building up a congregation. I speak from experience as a church-planter in Palm Springs, California, where three years ago, my wife, Deacon Sharon, and I, started Saint Cecilia Catholic Community in the lobby of my former law firm with four people. We now get twelve to fifteen on a typical Sunday, and we sometimes fill the church on days we have baptisms.
Many of our protestant sisters and brothers are very good at what’s known as evangelism, which is the fancy word the church uses to describe its sales and marketing efforts. Many of them have full churches every week to show for their efforts. But among Christians of the Catholic Tradition, and by that, I mean not only Old Catholic, but Anglican, Roman and Orthodox as well, evangelism is somewhere between uncomfortable and unseemly. Selling Jesus in the street and persuading people to come to church is somehow not part of Catholic culture for ordinary churchgoers.
Today’s readings highlight three suggestions to help us overcome those barriers. One, proclaiming God’s Kingdom is for everyone, not just clergy. Second, when you go out to proclaim the good news, take with you only what you really need. And third, if your words are rejected, shake the dust of your feet and move on.
We clergy can’t do everything. We need your help. We often hear the complaint that churches are over-clericalized, that is, clergy have too much power. The reason for this situation is that most of the history of the church has promulgated high expectations of the clergy, and correspondingly lower expectations of the laity. Simply put, one of the reasons clergy have amassed power is because the laity lets them have it by not shouldering more responsibility for things that happen at church. If there’s one thing we as independent Catholics must start doing, it is training lay people to attract others to church and motivate them to do so.
Jesus is not looking just to the clergy to make church successful and build up the Kingdom of Heaven, but to ordinary folk like you as well.
Our First Reading illustrates this. Here we have a conflict between a priest and a layperson about when and where God’s message is to be declared, not unlike the “whose-turf-it-is” conflicts between clergy and laity today. To give you some background, Amos was not a professional prophet, but a sheepherder and dresser of sycamore trees, an ordinary person in an agrarian career, not part of any elite group of people. Scholars consider him the earliest of the prophets, active around the year seven-fifty B-C. That was during the time the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were divided, Israel to the north and Judah to the south. You will recall from your bible history that they separated in about nine-thirty B-C after the death of Solomon, but before Israel fell to the Syrian Empire in seven-twenty-two B-C. Bethel was part of the Northern Kingdom known as Israel, and Amaziah was apparently a priest at the temple there. In the part of the Book of Amos that preceded today’s reading, Amos condemned the conduct and activities of the Northern Kingdom. His words concerned Amaziah, who reacted by telling Amos, in so many words, and go do his prophesying in the Southern Kingdom known as Judah. Layperson Amos, however, did not say, “yes-sir” to priest Amaziah, but “Go prophesy to the people of Israel,” that is, the Northern Kingdom. Instead, Amos told Amaziah, “butt out, I’ve got a job to do, and I’m going to do it.”
The moral of the story is that priests don’t always have the last word when it comes to getting the word of God out into the street. The word of God is not always transmitted through the authority of the clergy. If God wants to get a message out, it’s going to get out one way or another, the protestations of the clergy concerned about their turf notwithstanding. God is God, and God will get done what God needs to get done, whether we like or not.
What I like about this story is that Amos, called by God, took it upon himself to call out all the bad things that were going on in the area at the time, like exploitation of the poor, idolatry, self-indulgence, and insincere worship. Like many people with that message, he was unpopular, just like the church today is unpopular when it talks about the same things and condemns the world around it. Humanity has always been more comfortable about religious figures who affirm what they are, rather than those who are critical of them and point them in a different direction.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus gave the Twelve power to drive out demons. One of the worst demons of today is prejudice against immigrants and people of color. The United States had no immigration laws until the late Nineteenth Century when it passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. More laws regulating immigrants came in the nineteen-twenties, when quotas were imposed based on country of origin, favoring Europeans over everyone else. Immigration laws, whatever their intent, were aimed at people with different color skin and different culture than white, mainstream America. Things have not changed. Today, we see white ethnocentrism continue as the United States Government has focused on keeping out people from Southern and Central America, Africa and the Middle East. Second, we have large tax cuts for wealthy people financed by the shredding of the social safety net, where many more people will be forced to suffer the indignity of poverty, so that a relative few people are well-off and self-righteously blame the victims of their activities for the distress the victims suffer. One can see that the first and second problems are closely tied together. When you examine statistics of race and poverty, you will see that people of color get the short end of the money stick. The oppression of the poor and self-indulgent lifestyles of the wealthy that we have today were the same demons that Amos was calling out in his time.
Jesus also told us to travel light, to take with you only what you really need. I am a retired lawyer, and one of the things I learned as such, was to stick to the facts and avoid emotional appeals and personal attacks. As tempting as those outpourings of your gut may be to take along on your mission to build up the Kingdom of God, they are excess baggage that makes you less effective.
In driving out the anti-immigration demon, you don’t have to do that. The facts are favorable. All the arguments used against undocumented immigration are simply not true. Start from the premise that all people, no matter what their race or nationality, are beloved children of God, created in God’s image. If you get on the Internet and serious study the issues, you will find that undocumented immigrants do not take jobs away from Americans, but instead do jobs that Americans won’t take; that undocumented immigrants actually have a lower crime rate per population than native-born people; and that undocumented immigrants do not access public social services at a higher incidence than documented people, and, given the aging of our population, more immigrants, documented or not, are needed to pay taxes to support those of us like my wife and I on Social Security.
Some things haven’t changed. Jesus anticipated that in sending out the Twelve as described in today’s Gospel, they would run into opposition. You will no doubt encounter disagreement with others when you talk about the terrible way this country treats immigrants, undocumented ones in particular.
We can learn from both Amos and Jesus about how to deal with those who disagree with us.
Amos defiantly told Priest Amaziah, in so many words, “I’ve got a job and I’m going to do it in your backyard, like it or not.” We can’t let the powers-that-be shut us up. We are called to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and we must continue to do so, even if those in power disapprove. The church can’t be intimidated away from its mission. As Martin Luther wrote in his famous hymn, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”
Jesus also gave us good advice about how to handle rejection of our message on a personal level. Jesus told the Twelve that if they are not positively received, to shake the dust off your feet and move on elsewhere. There are times when you can’t get someone off first base. In discussing immigration with the people in your everyday life, you will no doubt encounter people who simply will not listen to you no matter what you say. These are the kinds of folks who will not change their minds no matter what documented facts are presented to them, and who will continue to insist that their gut-level impression of how life is cannot be invaded by reason. What do you do with them? You move on! To argue with them is a waste of time and resources.
So what are the consequences for the church in addressing controversial issues? Even if some people disagree with our message, it gives us visibility. It makes us get noticed. About a year ago, Saint Cecilia Catholic Community baptized the child of a lesbian couple after they were refused by all the local Roman churches. We invited the local newspaper and television stations. We were on the front page of the paper and on the evening news. By doing the right thing and publicizing it, we attracted members. We did it by doing exactly what Jesus told us to do when he proclaimed what’s known as the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew: Go and baptize.
For Catholics, “go” is an important word. The last words of the ancient Roman Mass were, “Ite, missa est,” translated literally as, “Go, she is sent,” “ite” meaning “go” as the imperative form of the verb “eo”, and “missa est” being the third person feminine singular of the present passive indicative of the verb “mitto.” (I still remember some Latin from High School!).
What all that means is after we leave here today, Jesus is telling us to do exactly what he wanted the Twelve to do. Remember, the Twelve were not professional clergy. They were a bunch of fishermen, a tax collector, and a thief. Jesus called them, but did not run them through a background check, send them to seminary, or conduct an ordination ceremony. They were like Amos, ordinary people just like you.
Doing God’s work does not require you to be ordained. Rather, as a Christian, it is the work you were called to do when you were baptized, when you were declared to be prophet, priest, and monarch. When I baptize, I use the Baptismal Covenant from the Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer, because I see the status of a baptized Christian as called to do something, not just assent to doctrines. Not only do our baptismal candidates, or their sponsors in the case of infants, promise to renounce the devil, follow Jesus, repent and return to God when they sin, pray, attend Mass, but they also promise to seek and serve Jesus in all persons, proclaiming by word and example the Gospel of Jesus, and to respect the dignity of every person.
When you leave here today to drive out today’s demons, by calling for the dismantlement of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, giving documents to undocumented workers, advocating universal single-payer health care, making housing a right, and paying a universal basic income, you will no doubt encounter resistance as you prophesy to your friends and neighbors. You will be in the same situation as Amos, the same situation as the Twelve. Do what Amos did. Don’t stop doing what you’re doing. Do what the disciples were told to do. Shake the dust off your feet in testimony to those who reject you. When someone rejects you, you are not the loser. Rather, the person who rejects you is, because they have deprived themselves of the value of your thoughts and companionship.
Yes, scripture is the word of God, but it is God’s word to particular people in a particular time in a particular place in relation to a particular situation. God speaks to us in context. The situation in which God is speaking to us today, here and now, gives meaning to what God is saying to us. We as contemporary Christians are special to our time and place, whether that be in Pennsylvania, California, or anywhere else. In July of twenty-eighteen, we are called in a very particular way to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. As the second reading makes known to us, we are a people redeemed by Jesus, a people who forgives because we are forgiven, with the riches of God’s grace lavished upon us. With that in mind, go out and proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven! AMEN.